The Little Town of Bethlehem

Tuesday, 25 December 2007 @ 10:10 am SGT

Contributed by: Yinghuo Chong

Last week, the scripture portion that was read and studied by observant Jews was the last section of Genesis (47:28-50:26), where Jacob is about to die and he makes Joseph swear that he would bury him in the Holy Land. He blesses Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Manasseh and then later, just before he dies, he blesses each of his sons, in each of their roles as a tribe.

The practice to read a “parashat” of scripture from the first five books of the Bible throughout the year starts immediately after Yom Kippur. The tradition observes that just as they have been cleansed of their sins and starting fresh, they start reading the Torah again, like it was new. The portions are divided so that the Torah reading is completed before the next Yom Kippur is celebrated.

A Bible class that I attend focused on Jacob comments to Joseph about the death of his mother Rachel. Rachel died whilst giving birth to Benjamin and was buried just outside Ephrath, which is Bethlehem (Gen 48:7.) This was just after they entered Canaan and was on the main route into Canaan.

Why did Jacob bring this up to Joseph, was the question. Why wasn’t she buried in the family burial tomb in Machpelah together with where Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Leah were buried, and where Jacob asked to be buried?

It is believed that Rachel, one of the most righteous matriarchs of the Jewish people, chose to be buried there on the main road because she foresaw the day her people would pass by here in the course of their history and be taken out of Israel into exile by the Babylonians.

And she elected to remain there so that she could petition the Lord for mercy on her people’s behalf. The Talmud teaches that a righteous person continues to intercede long after their natural lifetime.

They quote Jeremiah 31:15 in support of Rachel asking for mercy about the exile:

“A voice was heard from on high*,
Lamentation and bitter weeping,
Rachel weeping for her children,
Refusing to be comforted for her children,
Because they are no more.”

And the LORD’s response to that is in verse 16:

“Thus says the LORD:
‘Refrain your voice from weeping
And your eyes from tears
For your work shall be rewarded, says the LORD,
And they shall come back from the land of the enemy.
There is hope in your future, says the LORD,
That your children shall come back to their own border.’”

Up to today, Rachel’s Tomb remains historical for the Jews, there in Bethlehem. Millions have visited the site, gathering there to pray to God. Orthodox Jews make it very clear that Jews do not pray to the dead, but it is significant for them to pray there at Rachel’s Tomb because it is believed that she continues to pray on their behalf.

Jeremiah said the LORD heard her cries, recognized her for her righteousness in her life on earth and promised her that her people will return to the Land. It is traditionally read to mean the Babylonian exile.

As I thought about this at church this Sunday before Christmas I found a curious connection to this week’s parashat to the nativity story. Both take us back to the same scene—Bethlehem—the same place where Rachel was buried.

I pictured those driven out in the Babylonian exile as they passed by Rachel’s tomb praying to God reminding him of their kinship to her, and asking for his mercy. Imagine over the centuries the millions of Jews who have come to this spot in prayer to the Almighty, expecting those prayers as well as personal prayers to be specially heard. Did Mary and Joseph think about this as they passed this site?

I was blessed by how the LORD chose this place to bring deliverance. It was through another woman, Mary, who the LORD chose as a conduit of his mercy. He does this through during dramatic historical events. In the exile, it was because of the Babylonians that the crying was heard.

In Luke 2, we learn about how a young couple had to travel that route because of a decree by Caesar Augustus to be counted for a census. There born of the Virgin Mary, was a messiah, anointed of God, prophesied for centuries—Jesus—“the one who saves his people from their sin”, the Savior.

His deliverance came in the form of a Person, God incarnate, Jesus.

It is interesting too that in Matthew 2:18, the same Jeremiah passage is quoted again, this time in reference to weeping for the male children in Bethlehem to be put to death again by another historical figure, Herod.

We witness how history may take its course determined by men, but the LORD’s plan and promise override them all and reign supreme.

The Child Jesus was taken to safety in Egypt, and then brought back to Israel. There in God’s perfect timing the Child grew to be a man in order that he may do the work of His Father.

This time, as God promised in Jeremiah, these words have even more significance:

“And they shall come back from the land of the enemy.
There is hope in your future, says the LORD,
That your children shall come back to their own border.”

For through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the LORD finally brings his children back from exile from the very origins of where they were taken from the beginning of time—the Garden of Eden. Bringing the Israelites out from Egypt, or back from exile is one thing. Redeeming his people back from the bondage and exile of sin from Adam is the far bigger picture.

“Salvation is found in no one else. There is no name under heaven by which man can be saved.” (Acts 4:12)

This time, His deliverance, is not only for Israel, but the whole of mankind.

“There is hope in your future, says the LORD.”!!!

Halleluyah! What a wonderful thought to remember of God’s sovereignty, mercy and power as we celebrate this season.

*Some translations render this Ramah, which means “height” or high places.